“You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic. They’re magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilts, they face them down every day, and they prevail! That’s not weakness. It’s strength.”
Ostensibly a stab at one of the horror stories Doctor Who has traditionally done so well, Can You Hear Me? was another divisive ep in the way it took on another Big Issue. This time it was mental health, a topic the show has dealt with before (rather more effectively in my opinion) in 2010’s Vincent and the Doctor. The difference here is that rather than showing us a historical figure beset by his personal demons, this time it was the TARDIS crew who were revealed to have fears and anxieties of their own.
Your mileage may vary as to whether that works better than having the problem affect a prominent guest character; certainly the viewer is far more invested in the regulars, having followed them week after week. However, as with Orphan 55, I felt that the message was sledgehammer unsubtle, and not well integrated into the story as a whole. Wrapping up the plot then spending the remaining ten minutes of the ep discussing the issues it touched on (rather than having them peppered throughout the script) felt like bad structuring.
Which is a shame, because there was a lot to like here. Structured differently, it could have been a profound meditation on the subject of mental health and how we all deal with the fears, real or imaginary, that beset us every day. The final reveals of the TARDIS crew’s (and their friends’) various traumas might have worked better as gradual reveals via their recurring nightmares before the plot proper was wrapped up. That way, the final defeat of the ‘Immortals’ would have been the triumphant celebration of the characters confronting their demons as embodied in the bad guys, rather than what felt very much like a tacked on coda.
The story itself was actually pretty well done, with some nice stylistic touches from director Emma Sullivan. I particularly liked the animation used to tell the backstory of these fraudulent ‘gods’, almost like a moving version of the traditional art used in various cultures to depict their myths and legends.
Ian Gelder was suitably creepy as Zellin, his detachable fingers a nightmarish touch. Casting him and Claire Hope-Ashitey’s Rakaya as living embodiments of nightmares and fears worked well, particularly in the chilling scene with the small child terrified of the bogeyman. The obvious metaphor was that they were all the fears of the mentally ill made flesh; and it was fitting that, like those fears, they were deceptive, manipulative and opportunistic in their attacks on the vulnerable.
The script took the sensible approach of not trying to explain too much about them – any explanation would have been trite, not living up to justifying the immense power they were shown to have. Far better to leave their true nature unexplained, grouping them together with fanboy-pleasing references to the Eternals (from 1983’s Enlightenment), the Guardians (from the 1978 ‘Key to Time’ season), and the Toymaker (from 1965’s The Celestial Toymaker). These too were beings of immense power whose archetypal nature was wisely left ambiguous; though I did wonder whether the references really worked, as they would have sailed over the heads of viewers without an encyclopedic knowledge of the show.
The juxtaposed settings of contemporary Sheffield and 14th century Aleppo were interesting, and a good usage of the show’s staple ingredient of time travel. The choice of Aleppo was interesting; with Syria currently in one hell of a mess and rarely absent from the news, it can’t have been a coincidence that it was chosen. However, if a point was being made, it was hard to see what it was. Aside from the Doctor’s throwaway statement about 14th century Islam being a progressive culture compared to its contemporaries in Western Europe, in terms of its attitudes to mental health, the setting seemed a trifle arbitrary for somewhere so currently significant. Yes, it’s a good idea to call out ill-informed Islamophobia, but the show’s done that before (in a far more effective throwaway line from 2011’s The God Complex).
Whatever the reason though, it didn’t detract from the setting being unusual and effective, another representation of the way this season has sought to break the show away from its English Home Counties roots. And the character of Tahira was nicely realised by Aruhan Galieva, ending up as the key both to the plot and its resolution.
While the Doctor still seemed to lack some gravitas, I have to say that her final punishment of the ‘gods’ was nothing less than chilling. Being trapped in a small space for all eternity with a ravening monster was a truly horrific punishment, and a reminder that the heroic Doctor can have a pretty nasty side. It was inescapably reminiscent of the similarly chilling punishments he (as then was) meted out to the Family of Blood at the end of that 2007 story (though you might also have remembered he left the Master and the Rani similarly trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS with a bad-tempered T Rex in 1985’s Mark of the Rani).
I have to say though that it seemed pretty naïve that her first reaction on learning of the imprisoned Rakaya was to seek to free her. I mean, didn’t it occur to her to wonder just why Rakaya had been imprisoned? Given the show’s long history of all-powerful bad guys seeking to escape from hard-won imprisonments, you’d think she’d have made that her first question. After all, the Fourth Doctor’s reaction to finding Sutekh wasn’t, “how can we get him out of there?”
Still, you could see that as a deliberate choice, to portray the Doctor’s first reaction as always being to think the best of people till proved wrong. Not a problem if so, but at least a line acknowledging previous such encounters having worked out badly might have justified it better.
I also wasn’t sure about the Doctor’s less than helpful reaction to Graham’s unburdening of his fears. Again, I’m pretty sure that was a deliberate choice in characterisation, having the Doctor acknowledging her “social awkwardness”, but contrasted with such previous morale-boosting speeches to companions as Troughton’s earnest speech to Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen, it’s a turn for the character I’m not sure I like.
None of which is to say that Jodie Whittaker did a bad job, but again, I didn’t think she was well-served by the script. For once, though, the regulars all got some meaty dramatic material to work with, making their stories more fascinating than hers. Reunited with his best mate Tibo (previously seen playing basketball in Spyfall), Tosin Cole got some thoughtful scenes with his suffering friend that played into Ryan’s own nightmare very well.
Whatever my thoughts on Orphan 55, it was good to see that Ryan’s still haunted by the nightmare potential future he saw there, with that ep’s Dregs making a surprise reappearance. It demonstrated nicely that the characters don’t just move on without feeling aftereffects of earlier adventures; something the show’s done very well with under Chris Chibnall.
On the same note, it was perfectly fitting that Graham’s nightmare should feature the not-unexpected return of deceased wife Grace. It was good to see that, despite the character’s death in Jodie’s very first episode, Sharon D Clarke continues to appear as the ghost that haunts her husband’s memories; it’s one of the reasons why the deceptively deep characterisation of Bradley Walsh is so good.
Likewise, Mandip Gill got some good material to work with as the script gradually parcelled out her backstory of having tried to run away when still a teenager. The scene with Nasreen Hussain’s heroically understanding police officer was heartfelt and moving, so much so that I was prepared to forgive its inevitably sentimental payoff in the present day. Sometimes it’s nice to be a little bit uplifted.
All those scenes (and that of Tibo venturing into therapy for the first time) were well-written and sensitively handled. It’s just that, for me, they didn’t work all bunched together at the end after the plot had been resolved. Charlene James’ script could have worked better with gradually increasing reveals of these traumas in tandem with the plot proper, culminating in an uplifting, triumphant ending. Instead, what we got was a main plot that seemed slight at best, bookended with some good meditations on mental health that felt like they belonged in another show entirely.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the ep. The plot may have been slight, but it was well done, with some very effective horror moments and performances from an excellent guest cast. The show’s dealt with the Doctor’s own demons before (think The Mind of Evil or Amy’s Choice), but here her nightmare cleverly played into this season’s intriguing ongoing arc. The tantalising glimpse of the Timeless Child, together with the Master’s voiceover, didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, but it was a good reminder of an ongoing, unresolved plot; and thankfully it was the barest of glimpses, not being allowed to dominate the ep to the detriment of its own story.
So overall, there was a lot to like here. But just as with both Resolution and Orphan 55, it felt like the pieces of the script had been assembled in the wrong order. Don’t get me wrong, mental health is an issue very close to my heart (I suffer from clinical anxiety and depression), and I was glad to see the show dealing with it in such a sensitive way. I just wish that sensitivity could have been better integrated as an element of the story proper, rather than seemingly tacked on to the end of it. For all that, though, it lacked the sledgehammer didacticism of Orphan 55, feeling less patronising than that ep. Can You Hear Me? was a mostly enjoyable Doctor Who story that conveyed its message reasonably effectively – but it felt like it could have been so much better.